BAGHDAD – The Iraqi government backed away Sunday from accusations of Iranian interference, saying it had appointed a committee to determine whether there is merit to U.S. charges that its eastern neighbor is arming and training Shiite Muslim militants here.
The sharp change in tone, after meetings with Iranian officials in Tehran, the Iranian capital, reflects the difficult position in which Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finds himself as he attempts to juggle relations with two powerful allies who are intense rivals.
“We have no choice but to have good relations with the neighboring countries,” said al-Maliki’s spokesman, Ali Dabbagh. “We do not want to be pushed into a conflict with a country like Iran.”
Dabbagh’s comments came after U.S. officials had trumpeted the discovery of large quantities of Iranian weapons, some of them manufactured in 2008. The purported finds have not been shown to the media. But if true they would suggest Iran had not kept a promise to al-Maliki to help cut the supply of arms, funding and training to militants.
With pressure building from the United States to confront Iran, al-Maliki’s governing Shiite-alliance last week dispatched a delegation to Tehran to discuss the evidence with senior Iranian leaders.
Iraq’s national security adviser, Mwaffak Rubaie, and a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said Iranian-made weapons with manufacture dates of 2008 had been found in Basra during a crackdown last month on Shiite militias in the southern oil hub. Pentagon officials said they had also supplied the Iraqis with additional, unspecified evidence.
Iranian leaders, who deny providing backing to Iraqi militants, were furious at officials here for publicly airing their concerns. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini was quoted last week in the official Islamic Republic News Agency as “lambasting such undocumented and fabricated allegations,” which he said were intended to “serve the policies of the occupying forces” – a reference to U.S. troops.
On Sunday, Dabbagh told a news conference that the Iraqi officials who had made the accusations against Iran had acted irresponsibly and that al-Maliki has appointed a Cabinet-level committee to investigate the claims.
“We need to document this information … and prove whether such country is interfering or not,” he said. “If there is real interference, or Iranian arming, then this is a dangerous agenda which is not accepted by the Iraqi government and should be discussed at the highest levels with Iran.”
The announcement surprised U.S. officials, who last week described the discovery of large quantities of Iranian munitions in Basra as an “eye-opener” for the Iraqi government. A senior military official in Baghdad acknowledged Sunday, “We were blindsided by this.”